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Obesity Raises Risk of Multiple Sclerosis

There may be a connection between being overweight at a young age and a higher risk of MS.

It’s known that being overweight can lead to various health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Now evidence is building that being overweight early in life might also increase the chance of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life.

With MS, the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system, leading to the deterioration of the myelin sheath — the fatty substance that protects nerve fibers — and sometimes even the nerve fibers themselves. This destruction creates scar tissue that can interrupt communication between the brain and the rest of the body, causing such symptoms as fatigue, weakness, numbness, tingling, and issues with vision and balance.

Although the underlying cause of MS remains unknown, research published in 2014 in Neurology suggests that obesity is an important factor in the development of MS in people with a genetic susceptibility to the disease. The link may be inflammation: Obesity is associated with chronic, low-grade inflammation, and it may be that obesity-related inflammation triggers the autoimmune attack that occurs in MS.

Higher BMI Equals Higher MS Risk

Researchers in Argentina compared 210 people with MS with 210 otherwise similar people who didn’t have MS and found that obesity — defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more — at age 20 was associated with a much higher risk of developing MS than a BMI of less than 30. Their findings were published in 2014 in Neurology.

According to Jeffrey Dunn, MD, clinical professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford Health Care in Stanford, California, the results of the Argentinian study suggest an odds ratio of two to one, meaning that 20-year-olds with a BMI of 30 or greater are twice as likely to develop MS as those with lower BMIs.

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